When you are first faced with the task of writing a long essay or term paper it can be intimidating, but you make your job and the reader’s job much easier by following some basic rules of thumb. Of course, if your professors offer you any specific guidelines about writing be sure to follow those first. Otherwise, incorporate the advice that follows into your papers wherever appropriate.
Of course, papers should always be typed, double-spaced on 8-1/2 x 11 paper on one side of the page only, and letter-quality print or better is always expected. Often you are expected to supply a cover sheet giving the date, your name, the title of the paper, the class, and the professor’s name. Tables and figures should be numbered consecutively throughout the text, and if there are a good number of them, then separate lists of tables and figures at the beginning of the paper may be expected. Tables and figures should always have descriptive captions, and if they come directly from sources, the sources must be specifically credited in the captions with the same citation style that you use throughout the paper.
A paper’s title should be succinct and definitive, individual and informational. Clearly, the title "An Overview of the Hydraulic Fracturing of Methane-Bearing Coal Formations" is more complete, satisfying, and informative than "Hydraulic Fracturing." The title is important because it announces the paper’s specific content and typically serves as a pathway to the paper’s thesis.
Your introduction is your opportunity to be at your most individual. You should get your reader’s attention immediately by announcing the paper’s subject or by launching into a relevant scenario or narrative that informs or illustrates your overall argument. A paper illustrating the costly effects of poor mine design, for instance, might open with the scenario of how a poorly designed pillar at a salt mine in Louisiana once collapsed, fracturing the surface above and draining an entire lake into the mine. A paper on the supply and demand of nickel might begin by straightforwardly announcing that the paper will explain the uses of nickel, detail its market structure, and use data to forecast the future supply and demand of the metal.
In brief, a paper’s introduction should define and limit the paper’s scope and purpose, indicate some sense of organization, and, whenever possible, suggest an overall argument. Another important principle in technical writing is that the introduction should be problem-focused, giving the reader enough background so that the paper’s importance and relationship to key ideas are clear. A rule of thumb about the introduction’s length: about 5-10% of the entire paper.
As examples of how creative an introduction can be, here are the opening lines from a geography paper and a paper on optics, both of which use narrative technique to arouse our interest. Note how the first excerpt uses an "I" narrator comfortably while the second excerpt does not use "I" even though the writer is clearly reflective about the subject matter. The first excerpt is from a paper on the generic nature of America’s highway exit ramp services; the second is from a paper on shape constancy.
The observation struck me slowly, a growing sense of déjà vu. I was driving the endless miles of Interstate 70 crossing Kansas when I began to notice that the exits all looked the same. . . .
Our eyes often receive pictures of the world that are contrary to physical reality. A pencil in a glass of water miraculously bends; railroad tracks converge in the distance. . . .
Thesis Statement / Objective
Most papers have outright thesis statements or objectives. Normally you will not devote a separate section of the paper to this; in fact, often the thesis or objective is conveniently located either right at the beginning or right at the end of the Introduction. A good thesis statement fits only the paper in which it appears. Thesis statements usually forecast the paper’s content, present the paper’s fundamental hypothesis, or even suggest that the paper is an argument for a particular way of thinking about a topic. Avoid the purely mechanical act of writing statements like "The first topic covered in this paper is x. The second topic covered is y. The third topic is . . ." Instead, concretely announce the most important elements of your topic and suggest your fundamental approach—even point us toward the paper’s conclusion if you can.
Here are two carefully focused and thoughtfully worded thesis statements, both of which appeared at the ends of introductory paragraphs:
This paper reviews the problem of Pennsylvania’s dwindling landfill space, evaluates the success of recycling as a solution to this problem, and challenges the assumption that Pennsylvania will run out of landfill space by the year 2020.
As this paper will show, the fundamental problem behind the Arab-Israeli conflict is the lack of a workable solution to the third stage of partition, which greatly hinders the current negotiations for peace.
Body Paragraphs / Section Headings
Never simply label the middle bulk of the paper as "Body" and then lump a bunch of information into one big section. Instead, organize the body of your paper into sections by using an overarching principle that supports your thesis, even if that simply means presenting four different methods for solving some problem one method at a time. Normally you are allowed and encouraged to use section headings to help both yourself and the reader follow the flow of the paper. Always word your section headings clearly, and do not stray from the subject that you have identified within a section.
As examples, I offer two sets of section headings taken from essays. The first is from Dr. Craig Bohren’s "Understanding Colors in Nature" (1), which appeared in a 1990 edition of Earth & Mineral Sciences; the second is from a student’s paper on the supply and demand of asbestos.
Section Headings From "Understanding Colors In Nature"
- Color By Scattering: The Role of Particle Size
- Color By Scattering: The Positions of Source and Observer
- The Blue Sky: The Role of Multiple Scattering
- Color By Absorption in Multiple-Scattering Media
- Color by Absorption: Microscopic Mechanisms are Sometimes Elusive
Section Headings From "Asbestos: Supply and Demand"
- Industry Structure
- The Mining and Properties of Asbestos
- World Resources and Reserves
- Byproducts and Co-products
- Economic Factors and Supply and Demand Problems
- Uses of and Substitutes for Asbestos
- The Issue of Health on Supply and Demand
Just by considering the section headings in the above examples, we can begin to see the fundamental structures and directions of the essays, because both sets of headings break the paper topic into its natural parts and suggest some sort of a movement forward through a topic. Note how these headings—as all section headings should—tell us the story of the paper and are worded just as carefully as any title should be.
Most importantly, then, you must use your section headings in the same way that you use topic sentences or thesis statements: to control, limit, and organize your thinking for your reader’s sake.
Most papers use "Conclusion" as a heading for the final section of the text, although there are times when headings such as "Future Trends" will serve equally well for a paper’s closing section. When you are stuck for a conclusion, look back at your introduction; see if you can freshly reemphasize your objectives by outlining how they were met, or even revisit an opening scenario from the introduction in a new light to illustrate how the paper has brought about change. Your conclusion should not be a summary of the paper or a simple tacked-on ending, but a significant and logical realization of the paper’s goals.
Beware of the temptation to open your final paragraph with "In conclusion," or "In summary," and then summarize the paper. Instead, let your entire conclusion stand as a graceful termination of an argument. As you write your conclusion, concentrate on presenting the bottom line, and think of the word’s definition: a conclusion is an articulated conviction arrived at on the basis of the evidence you have presented.
What follows is an excerpt from a conclusion to a paper entitled "Exercise in the Prevention and Treatment of Osteoporosis in Women." Note how the conclusion reflects directly on the paper’s hypothesis and spells out the bottom line, gracefully bringing closure to the paper’s argument:
The majority of evidence presented in this paper supports the hypothesis that exercise positively affects bone mineral density in both premenopausal and postmenopausal women. Significantly, exercise has been shown to increase bone mineral density in premenopausal women even after the teenage years, and it helps preserve the bone mass achieved in the following decades. There is also evidence that exercise adds a modest, yet significant amount of bone mass to the postmenopausal skeleton. As these findings demonstrate, women of all ages can benefit by regular weight-bearing exercise, an increased intake of calcium-rich foods, and—for postmenopausal women—the maintenance of adequate estrogen levels. For all women, it is never too late to prevent osteoporosis or lessen its severity by making appropriate lifestyle choices.
Any sources cited must be correctly listed on a References page using the Author-Year or Number system (see Chapter 5 of this handbook).
The college admissions essay is a milestone for many high school students. And though people generally tend to enjoy writing about themselves, the admissions essay is usually viewed a little differently. Its often surrounded by a lot of anxiety and uncertainty as it relates to being accepted to a particular college or university-which can definitely be justified.
So what is the purpose of the admissions essay?
In many cases, the main idea of the admissions essay is for students demonstrate to the admissions department or review committee that they are a good match for the school and worthy of being admitted (based on the many things that they have to offer).
The second major aim of the college admissions essay doesn't have much to do with 'selling' or 'proving' anything-it simply involves letting the school know who you are and what makes you unique and different from everyone else. This can be considered the 'lighter side' of the admissions essay that is sometimes forgotten. Overall, the main goal or purpose of the admissions essay can be explained with three main objectives.
The Three Main Objectives
Though descriptions given about admissions essays may vary from school to school, in a nutshell the basic objectives of an admissions essay are as follows;
- To provide the review committee with information that can't be found elsewhere on the student's application
- To identify what makes them special, unique, and sets them apart from others (this may also include specific hobbies and interest)
- To share the student's life goals and aspirations, to get a better idea of what they would like to achieve and how the particular college or university can help them achieve that
These goals and objectives are generally made quite clear in the various questions asked within most college applications. Along with knowing the main goals of the essay, it may also help to simplify it into five general sections
Five Parts to the Admissions Essay
1. Who are you?
This section may likely come at the beginning of your essay in the introduction or early on in the writing; it provides the reader with some basic background information on you. What you supply should be useful and appropriate, and just enough to provide the reviewer with a context for your essay. For example, if you plan to talk about your struggle with learning English as a second language, you should obviously first explain to the reader what your first language is, where you are from, how long you've been living where you are and so on.
2. What major things have impacted your life?
College questions will usually ask about a specific influence or impact from your life experience. In helping to paint a picture of who you are its very important to know what helped to make you the person you are today. Many things influence our development and major life choices, they generally include; environment, close relationships, social status/class, and special happenings or events.
3. Why are you applying here? Why this program?
These questions may appear a little blunt, but essentially the admissions committee does want to know, why them? why here? Even though many students may just select schools for very simple or superficial reasons, reviewers generally don't want to hear that you've chosen their school because your best friend is also applying or because its close to home. They obviously require more thought-out, planned, and in-depth responses. So instead of making up an answer (which will likely be pretty transparent) take the opportunity to actual investigate the school you are applying to-it may turn out that its not the best school for you! And in doing so you can provide real, genuine answers in your essay to demonstrate that you've actually done your homework and you know what the school can offer you and why it would be a good choice for you at this time.
4. What are your plans for the future?
In this section students can focus on specific educational plans as well as general life goals. In many ways this section is connected to the previous question as schools are usually concerned as to how their school or program in particular will work into a student's long term life goals and aspirations. Though non-educational goals may be included, such as raising a family, moving to another country, or other than that, they should be restricted to appropriate topics that are in some way connected to educational and career-related objectives. This may not always be the case, but generally speaking it's best to keep the tone of the essay friendly and professional without being too personal, and career and education aims are easy ways of achieving that.
5. Would you like to explain anything specific about your record?
This last section may actually be more suited for the admission essay objectives list. Because in many cases one of the goals of the essay is to address unclear or ambiguous concerns not apparent in the application. So for example, if there is a gap in education (for instance with transfer students) or a poor academic report, low test scores, or something of this nature, the admissions essay is a chance to clarify and explain these issues. Though a specific question may not be asked regarding this, if there is a real pressing concern that you'd like to explain, there should be a way to work it into your essay one way or the other (or simply add an additional note or section to the essay).
Sample essay questions
In addition to the general objectives mentioned earlier, as well as the above section guidelines, some students may also benefit from practice essay questions. Practice is great for many things and with the admissions essay it can lessen some of the stress and anxiety connected to applying for and being admitted into college.
Below are a few sample questions/request;
- Provide one example of how your socioeconomic background influenced your decision to apply to this college.
- How will your attending this school help you achieve your educational goals?
- In what ways do you think that you will contribute to our institution?
You may have noticed that in some way the above questions touch on issues covered in the main objectives (though they may be presented slightly differently and demand concrete examples or a brief elaboration on some points). With that being said, in general, if you are able to fulfill the three main admissions essay objectives clearly and precisely in your writing, you should be able to easily address most questions posed in any college admissions application.
Some tips on getting your answers right
Its worth mentioning that even if you've already explored some of the issues mentioned in an essay question or prepared some portion of your essay ahead of time, its important to write a unique answer for each application. This will help to ensure that you directly and accurately answer the question that was requested of you.
So for example, a few generic paragraphs describing your educational goals is not sufficient to answer question number #2 above; because you must also research what the school offers and incorporate specific attributes of the school into your essay to properly answer this question (by stating how the school can help you attain your educational goals).
In some cases students do actually get so involved in their writing that they may forget to answer the question! So be mindful of that when preparing answers; constantly check the question to make sure you are on track and strive to create a unique and personalized essay for each school. Generic essays usually appear as so and may be looked at unfavorably by your admissions reviewer.